AFC Championship: New England at Indianapolis - Colts Slightly Favored
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Peyton Manning has done nearly everything a quarterback can do in the regular season, from setting records to winning MVP awards. His lack of postseason success, however, has thus far been a blemish on his career and cast the Indianapolis Colts as playoff underachievers.
Much of Manning and the Colts' troubles have come against the New England Patriots, who are poised once again to knock Indianapolis out of the playoffs.
In what has quickly become one of the NFL's best rivalries, the Colts (14-4) host the Patriots (14-4) in the AFC championship game Sunday.
With the conference's top two seeds eliminated and New England coming to the RCA Dome for the first time in six meetings between the teams, perhaps this is the year that Manning can elevate his squad and take the Colts to the Super Bowl for the first time since the Baltimore Colts beat Dallas 16-13 in Super Bowl V.
Twice in the last three years, though, New England has ended Indianapolis' season, making Manning look ordinary in the process. Patriots coach Bill Belichick devised schemes that forced Manning into four interceptions in a 24-14 win in the 2004 conference title game, then found a way to shut him down again the next season in a 20-3 victory in the divisional round, keeping the Colts out of the end zone the same season Manning threw for an NFL-record 49 touchdowns.
New England had won six straight and 10 of 12 against the Colts since Manning entered the NFL in 1998 before Indianapolis picked up victories in the regular season the past two years.
Despite Manning's superb play in the last two games against the Patriots, including a 27-20 win at Gillette Stadium on Nov. 5, he needs to get Indianapolis to the Super Bowl to shake the reputation of coming up short.
``I think it's the same thing at stake for him as there is for all of us,'' Dungy said. ``We've got a group that hasn't been to the Super Bowl. They'd like to get there. We're one step away. Everyone in the locker room wants to do that and Peyton's no different. It's not make-or-break for them and it's not make-or-break for him. We'd just like to get there and do it.''
The Patriots have no such reputation problems, having won three Super Bowls in the last five seasons. Despite that sterling record, New England might be considered a surprise entrant in the conference title game after stunning top-seeded San Diego 24-21 on the road Sunday.
The Pats rallied from an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit behind perennial postseason star Tom Brady, who overcame a career playoff-high three interceptions to lead his team to 11 points in 3:26 late in the game.
The Patriots went 12-4, won the AFC East and beat the New York Jets 37-16 in the wild-card round, but this team garnered less attention than in past seasons. Still, it should come as no surprise that Belichick and Brady are back in the AFC championship game.
Since the duo arrived in New England in 2000, the Patriots are 12-1 in the playoffs, the only defeat coming against Denver in last year's divisional round. Brady is a two-time Super Bowl MVP, and although he's struggled with turnovers this postseason, he's led New England to an 8-1 road record and has engineered two road victories in conference title games, in 2002 and 2005, both over Pittsburgh.
"There's no quarterback I'd rather have," Belichick said. "Nobody's going to play a perfect game."
While Manning hasn't played his best in this year's playoff wins over Kansas City and Baltimore, the Colts seem to have solidified the two areas that have held them back in recent years. Adam Vinatieri kicked five field goals in the 15-6 win over the Ravens on Saturday in the divisional round, and the once-suspect Indianapolis defense has passed two big playoff tests.
Vinatieri was one of the Colts' key free-agent acquisitions, signed not only for games like this one but also to weaken New England, his former team. With the Patriots the previous 10 seasons, Vinatieri proved he was one of the best big-game kickers in NFL history, making winning field goals in the 2002 and 2004 Super Bowls and providing the winning points in the Super Bowl in '05.
"When he walks out there, you always feel like he's not going to miss," said Colts coach Tony Dungy, whose team is 9-0 at home this season. "That was our whole goal when he was at New England, was you can't let him get close enough in a situation where a field goal is going to do it. I don't remember him missing in four or five years against me."
He's never missed in the RCA Dome, going 15-for-15 this season and 26-for-26 in his career. More importantly, Vinatieri has provided the Colts with the confidence that was lacking after Mike Vanderjagt's meltdown last season.
Vanderjagt is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, but had trouble in big games and badly missed a 46-yard attempt as the Colts lost 21-18 by Pittsburgh in the divisional round last season.
That was yet another flameout for Manning and the Colts, who started 13-0 in 2005 and looked to blow what appeared to be their best chance at a Super Bowl. Indianapolis started 9-0 this season, but went 3-4 down the stretch and entered the playoffs with many questions, especially on defense.
A unit that surrendered 173 rushing yards per game in the regular season, however, has regrouped, holding Kansas City to 126 total yards in a 23-8 win in the wild-card round, and allowing the Ravens just 83 rushing yards in Saturday's victory.
"I think we're playing consistently well for 60 minutes, and we're playing with an intensity that's been unmatched," former Pro Bowl linebacker Cato June said. "We're having fun doing it, and showing that all the stuff in the regular season doesn't matter."
How the defense has played the last two weeks won't matter if Indianapolis fails to get past New England for the third time in four seasons. Brady put rookie Stephen Gostkowski - Vinatieri's replacement - in position to calmly boot a 31-yard field goal with 1:10 remaining and complete yet another fourth-quarter comeback last week.
Gostkowski, considered a liability earlier in the season, has made all six of his field-goal attempts in the playoffs.
New England is 5-0 in AFC championship games since the merger in 1970. The Colts are 0-3 in title games since winning the 1970 conference championship.
By: Michael Cash - theSpread.com - Email Us
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